I saw Pleasantville when it came out, which would've been, what, like four and a half years ago. I thought it was okay. Then this week I watched it again. This time I basically wept for two hours. More on that later.
The premise is dynamite, so much so that if you don't know it already you shouldn't let me spoil it — dweeby David and his skanky sister Jen spend their school days listening to jeremiads about how the world is going to hell (AIDS, global warming, economic disaster) and then go home to their dysfunctional household where David escapes into the ultra-bland black-and-white 1950s sitcom "Pleasantville". Then Don Knotts (!) gets involved, and David and Jen find themselves literally in Pleasantville, having taken the place of the son and daughter in the TV household. In Pleasantville, no one uses language stronger than "gosh," the raciest of teenage couples only go so far as holding hands, parents sleep in separate beds, bathroom stalls have no toilets, library books are blank, the weather is always 72 degrees and sunny, nothing burns... and everything is in black and white, including David and Jen. David insists they play along or risk upsetting the order of things, but Jen isn't willing to go completely native, and shows the captain of the basketball team that there's more to do on Lovers' Lane than sit and look at the lake. And a rose on a nearby bush turns red.
I couldn't care less about special effects when they're being used to make things blow up more impressively or multiply the number of times per second that someone can be kicked in the head, but this, this hybrid of color and b&w that makes up the bulk of the film... this is awesome. Even putting the color effects aside, the movie looks terrific and every aspect of the town of Pleasantville is letter-perfect. The story is fairly straightforward: the townsfolk gradually learn about sex, and literature, and art, and the world outside the city limits... some find it thrilling, others disturbing, some turn to color, others stay defiantly black and white... the conflict eventually comes to a head... if you're looking for left-field plot twists, you won't find them here. Though you will find that the metaphor works on several levels: some reviewers scoffed at the "no coloreds" signs that pop up in the second half of the film, grumbling that the color in the picture no longer has a consistent meaning... but that's good, innit? It is neat that the metaphor can work on several levels. It's what makes Pleasantville better than simple allegory. The way plot, metaphor and comedy feed on each other is also worthy of note. Jen teaches her Pleasantville "mother" Betty about the birds and the bees, and suggests she experiment sometime when she's alone (plot); Betty does so, causing the tree out front to burst into brilliant flame (metaphor); David races down to the fire station and finds that he can only rouse them to action by suggesting that a cat is stuck in a tree (comedy); David wins public acclaim for his role in stopping the fire (plot); this brings him to the attention of the other kids, who have him fill in their books for them (metaphor)... it's very well done. And...
...and, well, most every scene left me with a lump in my throat at the very least and often dabbing at my eyes. Let me jump back a bit. When I was in college I studied pop culture and one of the most memorable lectures I heard was on Back to the Future, a film to which Pleasantville has often been compared. In Back to the Future, a contemporary (though in BttF's case "contemporary" is 1985 instead of 1998) high school kid finds himself in the 1950s. But in BttF, all this really means is that they haven't heard of Pepsi Free (now there's a dated reference) or Calvin Klein. The differences are purely cosmetic. The principal is the same, the same bullies are harassing the same wimps... 1955 and 1985 form a seamless continuity. The Reaganites' dream come true! A view of history that just SKIPS OVER the massive societal transformations of the 1960s and 70s!
This is what the Pleasantville Chamber of Commerce, worked up into a lather over the unsettling introduction of color to the town, calls "the non-changeist view of history, emphasizing continuity over alteration." Much of the movie's portrayal of the America of 1950s television is broad satire, but this bit if anything underplays the outlook of a frighteningly large segment of our society.
A while ago someone I was talking to expressed confusion as to the meaning of "reactionary" — not just what policies tended to fall under that heading, but what the word meant, what outlook it reflected. Reactionary doesn't just mean "really conservative." Conservative means wanting to stop progress, freeze time. Reactionary means wanting to go back in time. Wanting to, say, retreat to a mythical 1958. (Remember, the real 1950s weren't like Leave It to Beaver. They are often dismissed today as ten years of white-bread conformism, but a closer look at the period reveals that at the time many thought they were drowning in a wave of civil strife and juvenile delinquency.) Reactionary is Trent Lott waxing nostalgic for the Jim Crow South in those rare moments that he's not waxing nostalgic for the Confederate States of America. Reactionary is Bob Dole, responding to Bill Clinton's endless repetition of his "bridge to the 21st century" line, telling the 1996 Republican National Convention that he wanted to be a bridge to, oh, 1949 or so: "Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action. And to those who say it was never so, that America's not been better, I say you're wrong. And I know because I was there."
Reactionary is movie screening sites like Capalert lamenting what happens to "clean, honest, wholesome" Pleasantville. I wasn't expecting Pleasantville itself to be reactionary when I saw it the first time, though. I was expecting it to be conservative, the way Back to the Future is conservative: yeah, maybe the 90s kids introduce the 50s kids to skateboards and the macarena, but learn that really Pleasantville isn't so bad and isn't even so different... something like that. Instead, we get the sexual revolution, a downswing in censorship, a dismantling of traditional family roles... and though the town patriarchs grumble and scheme, among the characters we care about, these changes are greeted as joyous liberation. This is a movie that has the courage to remind our Fox-News-watching, Rush-Limbaugh-listening, Republican-electing society that the social changes of the 60s ought not be elided, or denigrated, or dismissed as a fashion statement, but celebrated for making life much better. The powers that be in our society are doing their best to turn back the clock — abstinence-only programs dominate sex education in our schools, Joe Lieberman has increasingly less to complain about as the quest for PG-13 becomes the new de facto Hays Code, standardized high school exit exams test students on texts that have been expurgated well past the point even Pleasantville High would require, the US Attorney General spends his time busily draping the breasts of statues — we can get this society buttoned back down! All that messy art and sex, we can make it go away! To which Betty, transformed from a ludicrous caricature into a thinking, feeling, weeping person, replies, voice choked with emotion, I DON'T WANT IT TO GO AWAY. And so rarely do you hear that sentiment articulated nowadays that I got more than a bit choked up myself.
See, I was a black and white boy for quite a while. Thanks to the grade-skipping thing I knew almost no one my own age and so was kind of locked out of the usual adolescent trajectory of steadily decreasing chastity. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by people much further along that trajectory than I, being younger, would have been even under normal circumstances. My response, appalled and envious in roughly equal measures, was to become obsessive about innocence and wholesomeness... not unlike the Pleasantville Chamber of Commerce. So when, years later, I actually did meet someone and get on the grid, so to speak... it was a very emotional time. I finally knew what I'd been missing. And it was that feeling that I saw reflected in the townsfolk of Pleasantville.
So, yeah, it was that confluence of the political and the personal that really got to me when I watched it this week. As I wrote in a paper for the class I mentioned earlier, Back to the Future isn't just conservative in its attempt to stitch staid 1955 to staid 1985; though many recall the plot of BttF as "Michael J. Fox goes back in time to fix his lame-ass family," in fact he tries his best to keep things as they are and that just so happens to turn out to fix his lame-ass family. The status quo as savior: it's the definition of conservatism. Ugh. But Pleasantville... Pleasantville is actually progressive. It's not calling for universal health coverage or decrying corporate control of government, but it is, at bottom, promoting the notion that change is good. Not that it was good in 1958 and then all the necessary changes took place and now we're all set. Changing the world in a positive way was a good goal in 1958, and it's just as good now.
Pleasantville is also cheeringly positive about healthy sex, which is remarkable in an era split between the true-love-waits, fire-Joycelyn-Elders faction on the one hand and those who use it to sell beer or count coup on the other. One of the first things to change in Pleasantville is that the 17-year-olds at Lovers' Lane turn their attention from the lake to getting each other horizontal... and it's good! It's fun, it brings people together, it loosens them up, it evokes their curiosity about what other unimagined stuff the world might hold for them... not to get too New Agey, but mainly it adds a lot of Positive Energy to the mix, which seems to me like as good an assessment as any of what sex is for. It's certainly not The Answer, and neither Jennifer (who gets the proverbial ball rolling) nor her first beau get any color out of it — they've got more pressing issues to work on. I mean, I'm not a hedonist. I'm all for leading a disciplined life. But there's a difference between discipline and repression, and it's nice to see a movie pair up sex with stuff like art and literature as correctives to the latter.
Anyway... what a marvelous thing it is that the spread of color television coincided with a revolution of American mores. It's a happy synchronicity that led to this movie, which vaults into my list of favorites.
Speaking of coincidences, I also happened to pick up James Sturm's Unstable Molecules this week, a graphic novelette also set in 1958. The premise: what if the Fantastic Four had been based on real people that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby happened to meet a few years earlier? What might those real people be like?
The answer is: they wouldn't become adventurers, or have superpowers... they'd just be people. A repressed scientist drafted into the Cold War; his frustrated housewife-in-training, being molded into a matron while still in her twenties; her sullen fifteen-year-old brother; and a "train wreck" of a man in love with her but unwilling to make a move on his old roommate's girl. It's a nifty little quartet of character studies, well-written with some nice art. Of course, if these were brand-new characters, Unstable Molecules wouldn't have attracted even a fraction of what little attention it did receive; the gimmick is that this is the Fantastic Four, turn-of-the-60s icons, as small-scale human drama instead of Kirby-scale action-adventure. Not all that meaningful if you didn't grow up with the FF. But I did, so I liked it a lot.